Student government politics: It happens everywhere

The GW Student Association is famous – or infamous – for being plagued with all the bickering, partisan divides and egos of a real government body. Students discussing the politics and the bureaucracy of the SA often sigh, “Only at GW.” But how fair is that characterization?

While it’s difficult to make an exact judgment on how the SA stacks up, after hearing from student leaders from Hawaii to South Carolina, GW’s SA doesn’t seem that different from other student governments.

“The passion is there,” said Tad Benter, president of the student government at Wagner College in New York City, discussing his school’s leaders. “The key is to just push that enthusiasm in the right direction. You can have it push toward student initiatives and creating change, or you can have it being pushed toward the political fighting.”

Benter, along with scores of other student leaders from across the country, came to Foggy Bottom this past weekend for the SA-hosted American Student Government Association, which provided programming events and forums for college student governments around the nation. Students participated in seminars on improving a student government’s image and discussions on how to run effective campaigns.

“If you work hard you will see results,” SA President Audai Shakour told students on Saturday in the Marvin Center. “We run a student government for the entire student body, and you must keep the focus on the students, even if some other people may get caught up in selling themselves.”

Benter said his government serves an undergraduate population of approximately 2,000 – about a fifth of the size of GW’s. He said, though, that in any student government, people trying to advance their own political careers is to be expected.

“With any piece of legislation that came up by the end of last year, you have to question if senators are really working for the students, or just working to get themselves elected again,” Benter said.

Maxon Victor is the president of the student government at Tampa’s University of Southern Florida. His group oversees a budget of close to $9 million and controls funding for every student organization and various departments within the university. By contrast, GW student leaders have a budget of about $500,000, and have repeatedly failed to get students to support an increase in the fees that mostly fund their organization.

“Politics is real,” Victor said. “We have our moments of who has the right to do what, and the senate is always on the executive. In the end we are all friends, but in the arena of the student government, you have to expect to play the political game.”

USF’s student government is structured similar to GW’s SA, with three major branches: legislative, executive and judicial; however, USF’s student government has a senate made up of 60 representatives compared to GW’s 30-member legislative branch.

“You have to keep in mind why you are there,” Vixon said. “Political bickering takes away from what you can accomplish. You cannot forget your mission and why you ran for office in the first place.”

Not every student government plays the political game like GW and USF, however. Kate Lewis is president of the Goldey Beacom College, a small business school in Delaware.

“We have a seven-member executive board that is our student government,” Lewis said. “We’re all friends just trying to plan events for our other friends. It doesn’t make sense to have politics in that setting, and it just makes everything so much easier.”

The Coastal Carolina College in Conway, S.C., has been trying to expand its student government for the last four years, said student body President John Adamec.

“We rarely have parties or slates running together in the election season,” Adamec said. “Everyone may have the same goals, the question is just how to get there.”

Adamec said he has succeeded in raising the awareness of his student body. Last year’s election was the first time the university instituted an online balloting system in an effort to increase voter turnout.

“We went from about 2 percent of the population voting up to 10 percent,” Adamec said. GW’s turnout has traditionally hovered at 15 percent.

Adamec said students will come out in the greatest numbers when they have something they can vote on that they truly care about.

“While our student government elections saw a great turnout, by far the best was for homecoming elections,” Adamec said of the voting to determine what type of event the school would host.

“We had 20 percent of the population voting,” Adamec added. “We were amazed.”

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